A Wilderness in the City
In late 2013, Diller Scofidio + Renfro won first prize in the international competition to design Zaryadye Park, Moscow’s first new park in 50 years. The project is a headliner in a series of high-profile schemes that aim to improve the city’s green space, including the renovation of Gorky Park and the recently revealed plans for the Moscow River. This article, originally published by The Calvert Journal as part of their How to Fix Moscow series examines how DS+R’s urban “wilderness” will impact the city.
In a 2010 interview, the critic and historian Grigory Revzin complained that Muscovites wishing to “walk in parks and get pleasure from the city” would have to “come out into the streets” before anything was done. Hoping that architects would respond to the problem, one of Revzin’s suggestions was a park to replace the site of Hotel Rossiya, which had become overgrown since being abandoned in 2007. This wild area in the city centre was, in fact, a harbinger of what is to come: Zaryadye Park, Moscow‘s first new park in 50 years, which the American design studio Diller Scofidio+Renfro won the international competition to design in November 2013.
A popular idea in the early stages of the park was that it could be made up of plants that appear all over Russia. Diller Scofidio+Renfro took this further, proposing that native flora be included, but as part of four artificial microclimates that mimic the landscape typologies specific to Russia: the steppe, the forest, the wetland and tundra. The principle behind this is similar to Park Russia, the proposed theme park south of Moscow, which promises to represent every region of the country in one space. Zaryadye’s microclimates will be maintained at consistent temperatures throughout the year by means of heating and cooling technologies, making Russia’s ”wilderness” into both an attraction and an exhibition.
Diller Scofidio+Renfro plan to meet halfway between the wild and the urban, and create a periphery in the centre of Moscow. This is appropriate for the area of Zaryadye which, located on the edge of the river in one of the oldest districts of Moscow, within 300 metres of Red Square and the Kremlin, is a suburb of the old city, but in today’s city centre. The term “wild urbanism”, used in Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s proposal, is described by the firm as “an opportunity to leave the city, and at the same time be closer to it”. Zaryadye Park isn’t the first project by the firm that explores the intersection between nature and the city. Diller Scofidio+Renfro are responsible for the High Line in New York, a singular linear park, 1.45 miles long, built on an abandoned freight-railway.
The Romantic idea of wilderness, according to the environmental historian Roderick Nash, originated in cities where people experienced nostalgia for when “human life was bonded closely with nature”. Diller Scofidio+Renfro are similarly interested in reconciling urban life with nature. As a result, the design for the park is completely pathless, so that people and plants can be free alongside each other, and pavilions are created out of folds in the landscape.
During the Brezhnev years, “wild” used to be a term addressed negatively to those who abandoned state-sponsored vacations to sanatoriums in the mountains or on the Black Sea coast for self-organised activities such as camping, hunting, fishing, rowing or sunbathing. These were discouraged for not being “socially useful”, meaning they did not comply with proletarian virtues that strengthened the body and moral character of the Soviet vacationer. Moscow’s suburbs today attract city-dwellers who choose to spend their free time camping or sunbathing on the edge of the microrayon (residential neighbourhoods developed in the former Soviet Union) and the forest. But this only goes to show that wilderness is not inaccessible or rare in Russia, which makes Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s nostalgia for nature seem rather unconvincing.
Proximity to nature was a goal of Soviet urban planning during the 1920s when the negative consequences of industrialisation were increasingly perceived to be a problem. To allow for the development of urban parks and green wedges, new legislation stated that “no newly built housing unit was to be further than 2,000 feet from a park space”. In his 1930 book Sotsgorod, Nikolay Milyutin proposed to merge the city and countryside entirely into one linear city.
The linear city was conceived during a time when there was a growing divide between the city and the countryside in the USSR, and was partly a reaction to Lenin, quoted in Sotsgorod, who called for an “elimination of rural desolation, its isolation from the rest of the world, its wildness, as well as the unnatural crowding of enormous masses into big cities”. While the linear city might have made an attempt to decrease rural isolation, if it was ever realised, it would have abetted collectivisation by decentralising power, giving the state full control over the land and produce.
It was not so long ago that “wild” was a stain on Russia. After 20 years, the label is still a reminder of the period of unstable economy and the failure of perestroika in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that plants can grow freely, Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s idea of wilderness is that which is not only cultivated but managed and controlled. The tamed wild, within reach of the Kremlin and the presidential administration, makes for a powerfully conservative statement in today’s political climate.
The idea for all-year-round gardens was first proposed for Gorky Park, which underwent a multimillion dollar makeover in 2011. While the winter gardens were never realised, presumably because of plans for Zaryadye, Gorky Park did open a designated space for people to gather to protest, which has been copied more recently at Sokolniki Park, located in north-east Moscow. When Zaryadye is finished, Gorky Park and Zaryadye will form a seven-kilometre green strip, with only a couple of roads separating the two parks. By 2017, 120km of Moscow’s riverfront will be green, in a scheme won by Russian architecture practice Project Meganom, which was announced at the end of 2014. While London’s Garden’s Bridge proposal has been criticised for disallowing protest groups, Moscow is renovating and creating public green spaces, some of which encourage but quarantine activism.
There is hope that residents will reclaim these spaces, much like the stilyagi — a subculture in the Soviet Union much like the Teddy Boys in the UK — did in the 1950s. The stilyagi were concerned not with finding alternative spaces for dancing and distributing illicit American music, but reappropriated key urban spaces such as Gorky Park, which had been designed as spaces for Soviet acculturation.
For today’s protesters, reclaiming space could simply mean using the parks in the way that they were intended. After the State Duma elections of 2011, anti-government protesters took part in what was referred to as “protest promenades”, the emphasis being on gulyaniye, which means to walk or, sometimes, to have fun and party. During the promenades, which continued until 2013, people “came out into the streets”, to recall Revzin’s words. Parks, which after all are designed for walking and pleasure, are equally appropriate for this kind of activity; especially Zaryadye, where people will be free to walk in wild, unscripted ways.
For more articles and interviews from the Calvert Journal’s “How to Fix Moscow” series, visit their site here.